Mauch Chunck was founded in 1818 as a coal mining exploration and transport hub. The Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company built the nation’s first “gravity railroad” in 1827 to deliver anthracite coal to waiting boats steaming the Lehigh River Canal. Aside from helping to fuel the industrial revolution, The Mauch was also home to a faction of the Molly Maguires – a 19th century Irish secret society acting more or less as a mafia-style union to fight low wages paid to Irish immigrants working the hard coal fields. Four of the Mollies were tried and publicly hung here in 1876. Interestingly enough, I noticed a local wearing a t-shirt that read “0% IRISH” across the front. It was odd enough that it burrowed into a small corner of my memory, and made sense after some research into the history of what is now Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Better safe than sorry…
The town changed names in 1954 to honor Oklahoma native James Francis Thorpe, who never lived in Mauch Chunk. A variety of lawsuits surround the transfer of Jim Thorpe’s remains to Mauch Chunk from Tulsa. Thorpe, who once attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School 100 miles to the south in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, still rests on a hill above the Lehigh River. The name Jim Thorpe, distinctly English, is now a permanent fixture on the map – and perhaps a warning to the Irish.
Our run from West Virginia included a steep snaking decent through Pocahontas County into Virginia, Maryland, back into West Virginia, and a brief overnight recess in Pennsylvania. We timed the drive perfectly, skirting a band of thunderstorms and closely watching the path of tropical system Elsa. As we pulled into our parking spot behind the Inn at Jim Thorpe, thunder echoed across the rolling Poconos and we quickly unloaded two small bags from the back of the Jeep. Minutes later, the sky opened its flood-gates.
Some call Jim Thorpe “The Switzerland of America.” This might be the absence of Irishmen…or because to get here, you have to drive through rural Pennsylvania coal country. Rural Pennsylvania coal country is not the “Switzerland of America,” and makes it point clear with multitudes of Trump flags, Stop The Steal banners, Don’t Tread On Me rattlesnakes, mobile homes, double-wide’s, lack of paint, and extremely bad roads.
After checking in, we caught a break in the weather and took an ephemeral walk-about. The town is cute. Old brick homes share the narrow streets with buildings representing Federalist, Second Empire, and Queen Anne architecture. The Five-O-Clock sky went dark and lightning crossed above us. Time to find some shelter. To our good fortune, we found a place called the Hose Bar and took the last sheltered outdoor seats on the patio. I enjoyed a craft beer while Kéa sipped hot chocolate. Thunderstorms provided our evening entertainment. Eventually, we settled up, walked through a soaking warm downpour, dried off, and had some dinner inside the Inn’s underground pub. Kéa destroyed me in another game of cribbage and we enjoyed what we hoped was our final night on the road. What a trip it’s been.